Gian Paul Gonzalez ’07 doesn’t waste time dwelling on limitations. Gian Paul is an educator of high school students from his home city of Union City, New Jersey as well as high school students across the state and has also been an adjunct professor to graduate students seeking their master’s degrees in education. In addition, he is managing a successful career as a motivational speaker and as founder of a community-based youth initiative. With a schedule like his, Gonzalez is determined to make every minute count.
When Gonzalez, a recent Montclair graduate and first-year history teacher, was invited to offer words of inspiration to the New York Giants in December 2011, he seized the moment. With his infamous “All In” speech, Gonzalez motivated some of the country’s most elite athletes to turn their season around and win the 2012 NFL Super Bowl.
It is tempting to think of Gonzalez’s speech, and the national recognition that followed, as a fortunate twist of fate. But doing so would ignore the level of dedication this educator and community advocate pours into everything he does – whatever the circumstances.
“I was a high school athlete, so naturally I had sports in mind when I was researching colleges,” he says. “I started out at Pennsylvania’s Messiah University, which offered me a basketball scholarship. It was a good experience, but the coach who recruited me was let go at the end of the first year. It didn’t feel like a good fit anymore.”
Gonzalez visited several colleges, and learned that in most cases transferring meant sitting out of his favorite activity for a spell until he could be integrated into the team. “My mom and uncle, also Montclair graduates, suggested I consider their alma mater,” he recalls. “Coach Ted Fiore, Head Basketball Coach at the time, invited me to his team and said that I could start playing as soon as I enrolled. I wanted very much to play, but there was more to my decision. Fiore said he’d like to have me on the team as a player, and also as a person. It was the first time a coach spoke to me in that way. I really appreciated that.”
It was an approach shared by Gonzalez’s professors. “They respected me as a person,” he says. “They posed challenging questions and guided me on how to make decisions. I learned how to have a purpose and conviction of my own.”
Gonzalez indeed kept an open mind as he sampled a variety of majors. “All I knew at the time was that I wanted to serve and give back to others,” he says. “I tried sociology, social work, anthropology. Then I took a history course with Professor Michael Whelan. He made every class feel like we were watching a movie. I was hooked.”
“Montclair is a community that allows freedom, as well as encouragement and support, to explore,” Gonzalez continues. “For example, gym space was limited, so Coach Fiore offered to open the gym for me at 5:00 a.m. to allow me to practice my skills. My advisor encouraged me to attend an NCAA leadership conference, which introduced me to players from around the country. I still use some of the team-building exercises that I learned at that conference.”
Gonzalez’s eye for opportunity and passion for giving back sparked a new way of thinking in his senior year when an assistant coach asked him to play as a fill-in for a celebrity all-star game. “After the game, kids were coming up to me for my autograph,” he says. “I started to think about the power of sports in peoples’ lives.”
Soon, Gonzalez was reaching out to athletes he had played with, and against, during his college years to invite them to play basketball with youth at an Essex County juvenile detention facility. “We played ball and had pizza,” he says. “These are simple things that we often take for granted, but I saw how much it meant to these kids.”
These visits became more regular and continued after he graduated, drawing the attention of George McGovern. McGovern, who was chaplain for the NY Giants at the time, heard about the work Gonzalez was doing playing basketball with justice-involved youth at New Jersey juvenile facilities. When a scheduled speaker for the team had to cancel, McGovern reached out to the basketball player he saw bringing so much hope to troubled youth.
Gonzalez is reflective when he talks about his moment as an NFL speaker. “It seems like things came fast, but really, everything happens with the proper timing,” he says. “A lot has to do with building relationships over time.”
At times, it seemed that the relationships and timing were right, but the goal itself didn’t compute. “After I graduated Montclair State, I had the opportunity to train for the NBA Combine,” Gonzalez says. “Since I had kept in touch with my coach from my freshman year at Messiah, who was training players like Greg Oden and Mike Conley of the Utah Jazz, he trained me for the NBA Combine and I was chosen from the summer roster in Los Angeles. I was on track for a career in professional basketball.”
“Living the dream” was falling short for Gonzalez, however. “I couldn’t get past the desire to make a difference in my home city,” he says.
Gonzalez began making a difference by teaching world history to 9th graders in Union City. Once again, however, his keen eye caught a detail that others missed. “I noticed that there were few after-school programs in the community, and none that were open into the late evening, when most of the crime in our neighborhoods was happening,” he says.
That observation manifested into Hope + Future, an afterschool health and wellness program. Working hand in hand with teachers and school administrators, Hope + Future is teaching students to lead, and then providing them with opportunities to do so. More than 2,200 student members have participated in the Hope + Future Youth Community Center programs since the organization opened its doors in 2015.
Hope + Future draws students in through its focus on sports, but it doesn’t stop there. “We recently received a competitive state grant award for an anti-gang violence program and another grant will enable us to open a café that will train youth to become baristas,” Gonzalez adds, noting that the latter program sprang from his own love of coffee. “Accreditation as a barista is a marketable trade that can take you around the world, if you want.”
Yet another grant will help purchase a sound-proof pod that will serve as a home for cognitive-behavioral programs. Every Hope + Future program is developed with the community’s needs in mind and – importantly – Gonzalez is cultivating the organization’s next generation of leaders from within, to ensure that it will thrive beyond his own involvement.
When Gonzalez was invited to represent Montclair in The College Tour, a TV series streaming on Amazon Prime Video that helps students and families virtually visit colleges across the country, he jumped at the chance.
“It was so exciting to see Montclair on the national stage,” he says. “Montclair is right here, ready to give you an excellent college education. For the athletes out there, Montclair might be a Division III school, but you can still give it Division I effort and get so much out of the experience.”
Gonzalez, who was inducted into the University’s Athletics Hall of Fame, also makes time to speak with Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) students. In fact, some of the graduating EOF students he spoke with this past spring remembered him from his visit to them in 2017, when they were just beginning their college journey. “I assured them that they might be the first in their families to go to college, but that they wouldn’t be the last,” he says, adding that as a Cuban American he is especially pleased to see the University’s increased outreach to the Hispanic community.
As he travels the country offering words of encouragement, Gonzalez loves telling audiences about Montclair. “My time at Montclair challenged me to reach for big dreams,” he says. “It’s a story I love to share. The University has created an atmosphere that values students as individuals, which in turn gave me the courage to bring people together to make the community better.”
“When we work together, when we throw a line to each other, we begin a new cycle,” he says. “Walk with purpose and you will be surprised at how many people are willing to walk alongside you. And there is peace to be found in giving your all. You will inspire those around you and doors will open for you. You will go farther than you ever thought possible.”